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Natural World: It can be tough to spot a pygmy owl, but sighting one is well worth the effort 

The robin with no tail; an adult Northern Pygmy Owl.
  • The robin with no tail; an adult Northern Pygmy Owl.

Ken Hashagen, president of East Cascades Audubon Society of Bend, and I often get together to discuss bluebirds, kestrels, Great Gray Owls, eagles and other boring topics.

"Boring!?" I should say not. After just a few minutes we're waving our arms about and I can feel my blood pressure building up as we get into it about the latest sighting we've had on this or that raptor.

We both band birds. Ken's now a master bander, but was under my permit for a while, and I have been at it for over 60 years. Like me and many, many birders, he too drives with one eye on the road ahead and the other scanning the tops of the trees, looking for raptors and pygmy owls.

You just have to get your foot off the gas pedal to do that, especially if one of your kids shouts, "Dad! Look! There's a robin with no tail in the top of that tree!"

If you're going like blue-bloody-blazes down the road at 65 mph, concentrating on not hitting a bicyclist, pedestrian, mule deer or 18-wheeler, it's difficult to spot a pygmy owl in the top of a juniper.

Still, the rewards for suddenly coming upon one, and having the time and intelligence to pull over slowly and safely, are well worth it. I was going over the McKenzie Pass to Springfield one day not too many summers ago and had to dodge a pygmy owl dragging a fresh-dead pine squirrel across the road.

As I came to a stop a few feet beyond the little owl and started scrambling for my camera, I could hear him already scolding me, and—drat it all—by the time I got my camera he'd made it to the other side of the road, into a thicket, vanishing in the underbrush. A pygmy owl is noted for its pugnacious attitude and the ability to kill and devour birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians way bigger than it is. Being aware of silhouettes in the tops of trees along the roadway can help you spot a pygmy owl.

If you see one and want to get a closeup photo like Ken's, all you have to do is become a pygmy owl. That's done by staying in your car, opening the window and whistling in short bursts with a trill at the end. The owl—especially if it's a male—will quickly react to the territorial sound and usually come looking for it, thinking it's a possible intruder. (This website has the call: allaboutbirds.org/guide/Northern_Pygmy-Owl/sounds)

The owl has no idea it's you making the fake call, but concentrates all its searching abilities trying to see that other owl calling. If you keep it up and get the little guy to fly, he'll be in your car, or on the top of your head if you let him. A pygmy owl in the top of a tree alongside the road is really a common sight throughout Central Oregon in winter. Not so during nesting season, but around November they begin showing up, peaking in December and January. The big thrill comes when the owl turns its head, which they can do in the blink of an eye.

The feather pattern on the back of the owl's head resembles two eyes looking right at you! Both male and female have "eyes" in the backs of their heads, which is no surprise. Both my mom and dad had similar physical features, as do most parents.

While cutting wood a couple of years back my sons and I were in a location that had a resident pygmy owl. Obviously, we had no idea it was there. After about 10 minutes of cutting wood, I shut it down to refuel and we heard the sharp whistle of a pygmy yelling at us: "Shut that stupid thing off and get out of here! This my home!" So we did, but not before I put up a small owl nesting box on the north side of a tree, something I always carry with me when out woodcutting.

I know someone reading this column will see one next winter, so please give me a call (541-480-3728). I'll make an effort to live-catch the little guy and band him with a USGS bird band. This will give us the opportunity to keep track of him or her as it travels about the Northwest, and learn how long it may live, or when it dies. We'll learn why, how and when.

I make it a habit to stop for all birds I see lying on the shoulder or in the roadway. Very few are banded, but when I find one that is it's always a thrill. As soon as I get back home I go to my ancient computer, open the Bird Banding Lab website (pwrc.usgs.gov/bbl/) and follow the links to reporting a banded bird.

Have fun, and please keep off that cell phone when you're driving; you can't see pygmy owls when you're talking on your cell phone.


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